Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The American Dream: The Great Gatsby Review

Cutting to the chase: The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite adaptations of literature to film.  And I was ready to hate it.  I was ready to join in the broiling ranks of intellectuals and former AP English students with baseball bats and brass knuckles, rallied in fury around Baz Luhrmann's house.  The boring vastness of Australia, the purposeless insanity of Moulin Rouge and even the sometimes-overdone-ness of the rather great Romeo + Juliet--all of these prepared me to be disappointed.  But it succeeds because it tells the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, and doesn't have to tell the book.

Just so you know: Nick Carraway (played sufficiently by Tobey Maguire) comes to New York to make it as a stockbroker.  America is the land of immediate opportunity and golden, wine-spouting success.  "The tempo of the city had changed sharply," he tells us, "The buildings were higher, the parties were bigger, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper." Nowhere is this more true than in the Playboy mansion behind Nick's tiny house, owned by the enigmatic, legendary Mr. Gatsby.  For reasons unclear, Mr. Gatsby invites Nick to his house personally and the two become friends, entangling Nick with Mr. Gatsby's uncertain past and his dreams to rekindle his love with Daisy Buchanan, Nick's cousin who has long been married to refined, old-money Tom Buchanan.  It gets crazier.  Go see it.

It doesn't try and imitate the pacing of the novel (except in the vital and brilliantly-executed ice block scene) but instead fevers past us like a convertible overflowing with hip-hop drunk white people on the way to get the evening smashed.  It doesn't pretend that it has the time to lazily slip into ambiguous characterizations--Tom Buchanan busts onto screen playing polo and strutting through his East Egg house; (which is as lavishly representative of his character as is Joel Edgerton, whose presence overwhelms and made me wonder "didn't this guy win an Oscar for something?" He hasn't, but the film makes you wonder why.) Daisy is introduced in a flurry of billowing curtains that takes one's breath away as efficiently as Fitzgerald's prose does.  Gatsby's overflowing fireworks introduction is as hilarious as it is majestic, and Myrtle and Catherine steal the show with their five minutes on screen and Nick's first real party.

I did feel babied with the fourth shot of T.J. Eckleburg's godlike glasses, accompanied by a voiceover that "God sees everything".  Still, more than ever, this director, accused of being the most bombastic of our time, delivers a story that appears so clearly to be near his heart.

The green light, only mentioned a few times in the book, dominates Gatsby's vision as well as ours.  The music, a sort of mash-up between Gershwin and Fergie, Jay-Z and Harlem Jazz, instructs us more about the 1920's than any degree of dialogue about it could.  We know what they were like because we know what it is like today.  The characters don't talk about the issues that startle us--the faceless blacks without dialogue or place besides on the stage, the women whose say is trivial to the men--and instead of having to talk about it we see it happen.  Like Nick and Jordan in the hotel scene, we are hapless witnesses to the great crimes of our time.

And crimes there are, in abundance.  Though Tom is the first we hate, for his bigotry, infidelity, and cruelty, he seems so clearly a product of his time that I almost forgave him.  Gatsby's past is not as clean as he at first assures Nick, and for all of his assumed manners, the animal comes out in that great ice-block scene that makes us, like Daisy, shudder and want to turn away.  Leonardo DiCaprio gives Gatsby the shine of the celebrity, the charm of the con, and the pain and hope of the scorned lover. He is just imperfect enough to play Gatsby.

Here--and in the novel--Nick is a stroke of genius because he embodies the audience member.  Like him, we have always been taught to see the best in people.  Like him, we go with the flow, allowing the rhythm to overwhelm us and the current of the times to carry us along.  We seek the prosperity that others think we should, and deify those who achieve it.  When a drunk Nick steps onto the balcony in his underwear and says that he feels connected to everything, "within and without", we point our finger at the screen and say "I know what you mean." But what the novel asks us to consider is if our neutrality has any merit, and if we are really even living our own lives.  In the end, there is no one to side with.

And isn't that a message for our generation?  Our inheritances as a culture and a nation are more sickening than wonderful.  Among the worst is what we mean when we say 'Love'.  A sort of American Nirvana, complete with raucous sexuality, wealth and prosperity, and a fulfillment of all selfish dreams above all else.  Whether you are New Money or Old Money, Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby, or Wilson, pursuing that American Dream is destructive.  It is selfish.  It is finally meaningless.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel raised a voice of warning, but captured it with charitable neutrality.  The film does the same--it presents the brightness and fun of it all, and even the humor and heart of all its characters.  Life is fun, full of new surprises and beautiful sights.  For me, however, it asks a question: "Where do we go from here?" The past is behind us, freezing solid as we plunge on.  The future is unknowable, unplannable.  But what do we choose to do now?  As a nation, as individuals, as families?

We'll see if I figure it out.  For now, go see the movie.  Think about it.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Absurd Idea: The Book of the New Sun

Like much of science fiction and fantasy, The Book of the New Sun does not defy description; instead, it invites caricature.  Gene Wolfe's four-part work could easily be cast aside as nerd-food, what with its lusty young protagonist who wields a massive, Latin-named sword, its episodic parade of curious creatures and exotic locales, and even a battle where a village of beaten-down lakedwellers invade the castle of a ruthless magician.  Turning up your nose yet?  Control the itch, please.

I have loved the work of author Gene Wolfe since I was fifteen, and luckily my degree of comprehension has increased somewhat since my first being entranced by his prose, stories, and worlds.  Wolfe was born in New York, dropped out of college to fight in the Korean War, became an engineer afterwards, and invented one of the machines involved in the creation of Pringles.  His prolific work in science fiction is consistently award-winning, and he keeps trudging along at 82.  While science fiction is often divided into "hard" and "soft" categories--that is, fiction based on either the natural sciences or social sciences--Wolfe's work spans both in such a comprehensive way that flies miles over the heads of many readers, or at least young me.

The Book of the New Sun takes places billions of years in the future.  The sun is dying.  Overly large and red, it is no longer bright enough to scare away the stars during the day, and will supposedly die soon.  Religious convictions of the time believe that the Conciliator, a celebrated philosopher of times past, will return as the New Sun, renew the dying star, and save Urth.  Our protagonist, a young torturer named Severian, sets down a story for us that seems unrelated.  He falls in love with a client of their guild, allows her mercy by giving her a knife to kill herself with, and is banished into the massive city of Nessus, full of the poor people of the Commonwealth.  His journey makes him an actor, an executioner, a soldier, a temporary father, and eventually much more.  Severian's intellect gives us clear pictures and leaves out important details he assumes we should know, coupled with boyish simplicity.

At first I valued Wolfe for the same reason I valued Mieville--amazing creatures like the alzabo (a wolf that imbibes the consciousness of the creatures it devours and then can speak like them), imaginative places (the House Absolute, a huge garden hiding a subterranean palace for the ruler of Urth guarded by camouflaged police), and fidelity to his creations that make them lived-in by their characters, instead of commented on by them.  There is not enough that can be said of these virtues, considering that they are ignored by almost every writer in the SF world.  Beyond this, I could have devoured his books for the reason I devour Stephenson's--the sheer wisdom of his foresight, the cleverness of his commentaries, and his undaunted hope.

But with Gene Wolfe, there is more to like.

Gene Wolfe's Catholic faith is surprising.  His work reads like a Borges who has just read Tolkien for the first time, but who still goes to the cafe weekly with Plato, Descartes, and the collected body of the Council of Nicaea.  I'm missing some figures here--Severian, our thoughtful protagonist who claims to have a perfect memory, covers what seems at times to be the whole of human thought in his own observations of the world around him.

And what a world it is!  Unlike keyboard-vomit writers (myself included) who create names for their fantasies with cool-sounding collections of letters, all of Wolfe's names come from archaic words.  His genetically-engineered horses are called destriers, his soldiers dimarchi (they who fight in two ways).  His lore has its sources too--the fuligin-clad torturers are subtle descendants of priestly offices.  Though some references are clearer than others, we come to recognize our own world in Severian's Urth.  A picture-cleaner shows Severian an ancient photo of a man in white armor and a gold visor in the desert.  A storybook tells a story about a young boy brought from another planet who was defended by a panther before a council of wolves and eventually became a great leader.

The detail of Wolfe's portrayal stems from wit, but also from a deep need for verisimilitude.  Wolfe is showing us the world as he sees it.  The fourth volume's portrayal of war echoes the chaos and futility he might have seen fighting in Korea.  The government of the planet is ruled by a man who runs a brothel on the side, for personal reasons.  Everything is many-layered--his aliens (called Heirodules, holy slaves) wear masks that look like human faces, beneath which lie hideous monster faces, but these too are masks, hiding real human faces.

The great success of Wolfe, who writes with the intent of revealing God (here called the Increate or The Pancreator), is that he never forgets the masks.  Most religious literature presents a world that is oversimplified in order to show how God works.  Wolfe presents a world so complex and difficult it shakes us to realize that it is real, accurate, and truthful.  He is not trying to help us escape, but instead to see our world differently.  Near the end of the book, a curator speaks to Severian of the dead.

"I wanted you to see that there has been a lot come before you.  That there was thousands and thousands that lived and died before you was ever thought of, some better than you."

"You are the advocate of the dead," Severian observes.

"I am.  People talk about being fair to this one and that one, but nobody I ever heard talks about doing right by them.  We take everything they had, which is all right.  And spit, most often, on their opinions, which I suppose is all right too.  But we ought to remember now and then how much of what we have we got from them." (pg. 389)

As a religious writer, Wolfe does not ignore the past.  Greek & Roman thought finds its way here.  Buddhism is not ignored, and others more obscure are not forgotten.  A sense of universe-straddling perspective descends upon the reader, and a clarity to pull what is absurd from what is real.  Here God steps  in, not as a logical conclusion, but as an improbable possibility backed up by strange and inconclusive evidences.

To find God here, one must always make the choice to believe in the absurd idea.  "But then," Severian points out, "all ideas are absurd."

The Book of the New Sun is an example of what science fiction can do.  It was invented as the "novel of ideas," a chance to put forth concepts that were new, things that no one had thought of before.  Nowadays so much of it has us plodding down the same paths looking at the same uninteresting ideas.  I strongly encourage you to give Gene Wolfe a chance, and to see what the genre is really made of.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Iron Man 3 is 2013's The Odyssey

I saw Iron Man 3 on the Saturday Night of its opening, expecting nothing at all.  Iron Man 2 was one of the least pleasant superhero movies I have ever seen (thought not as awful as Sherlock Holmes 2...yikes) and so I went because there would be other humans sitting in a dark room, looking at the same blinking lights as me on a wall.

Within five minutes, I was hooked.  After an hour, I was squirming with excitement.  After the credits, I felt empowered.

What makes Iron Man 3 kinda awesome?  Also, why is Iron Man 3 like the Odyssey?

Kay, quick summary: In the Odyssey, a heroic man named Odysseus has just finished sacking Troy with his buddies, and spends twenty years trying to get home, brought to the lowest of lows and aided by the gods in trying to get back to his wife.  He weeps for large portions of the book and sleeps with a lot of goddesses on the way, but his homecoming has warmed the hearts of 9th grade English students for, like, 2500+ years.

In Iron Man 3, we begin following Tony Stark's battle of Troy--in case you missed it, it was the huge fight in New York that we saw in the Avengers.  A million gabillion aliens invaded the Big Apple through a big black portal that opened above it, and Tony Stark saved the day by stopping a nuclear bomb that was going to hit the city.  Using his flying Stormtrooper suit, he tossed the bomb into the portal, blew up the aliens, and saved the day.  The fact that this battle never receives an on-screen flashback is actually a nod to the Greeks, whose mythology was so familiar to them that the battle of Troy never receives mention in Homer's epic.  Homer (or the group of people who are now called Homer) was an oral poet who travelled all over Greece giving performances of The Odyssey to towns of people who would gather to hear him.  So it is today--our generation is united in a sense by the stories of the superheroes whose stories are made mythic and shown to us in small groups on the silver screen.

Okay, forgive me the historiology.  Back to Tony Stark.

The guy is suffering anxiety attacks following the battle in New York City, and stays away until all hours of the night tinkering with his suits, much to the frustration of "I-Don't-Get-Your-Hobby" Pepper Potts.  Their relationship is clearly flawed, and not just on his end.  When she comes home for her birthday and is greeted by his remote-controlled suit, she comes downstairs to see him having a breakdown.  Her reaction, that they go upstairs and have a communal shower, is soothing to the sexually-frustrated adolescent but totally insufficient to any reasonable adult.

Tony's condition immediately makes us want to jump into his corner.  He is no longer the overconfident showmaker of Iron Man 2.  He is at wits' end even before the conflict of the movie starts.  And oh, does it start.

Iron Man 3's biggest villain, the Mandarin, is one of the coolest we have seen in superhero movies for a long time.  Played by Ben Kingsley, with a long scraggly beard, greasy ponytail, and armor that makes him look like a tribal warlord, the Mandarin's messages to the United States overcome every channel on television and broadcast into every home.  His rhetoric is tight, his images disturbing, and his threat universal.  Several directorial choices strike me as awesome--the Baptist preacher voice stuns in a way that would make Kingsley's portrayal of Gandhi shudder, the home-video terrorist moments are strikingly real, and the rest of his storyline is a surprise.

There are others--old business compatriots and enemies that seem to have something to do with the mysterious explosions and weird mutant-looking people that we've been seeing all over.  It works out as tightly and simply as superhero movies do, and they're not why it's good.

What endears us to Iron Man 3 is not the tin man aerobics but the bionic heart of the man, who in this case is performed with all of the alacrity, panache, and charm we hope for in Robert Downey Jr., with higher stakes than we have seen in a long time.  Whereas Iron Man 2 was marked with press releases and public scandal, Tony finds himself with a battered, powerless suit in the snowy nowhere of Tennessee.  Watching him figure out the tiny details of how to get back in the air and back to saving the world are hilarious, and he gains a useful ally in a little boy (played like it is by Ty Simpkins) who gives Tony his sister's limited edition Dora the Explorer watch.  The watch later becomes the subject of the movie's funniest joke.

What the film refutes (at least to some degree) is the over-awesomization of superheroes.  Tony Stark storms a villain's lair with explosive Christmas ornaments wearing what looks like a homemade laser tag suit. Don Cheadle, the down-to-earth government employee who happens to be Iron Patriot (a name made fun of repeatedly, and for good reason), runs around in unfashionable jeans and a green polo shirt.  The movie does not glorify violence so much as it showcases larger-than-life people trying to save the very-normal world.

I'll admit some disappointments--one particular revelation lowers the stakes a great deal and the concluding sequence, while full of explosions and Christmas cheer, just didn't draw me in--but Iron Man 3 still might be coming in as one of my favorite superhero movies ever, because instead of trying to be a cultural event through size and spectacle, it manages to be one nonetheless through its humor and heart.

Tony Stark's Odyssey is too much fun for me to bother recreating and ruining for you.  Go see it.  It's as fun as watching a live performance of Homer.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Stronger Ending for Bioshock Infinite (Spoilers Throughout)

I am not the first to do this.

For me and many who have played it, I think the ending comes on too quickly and too unexpectedly for us to feel anything about it.  I hope to share some of my thoughts of what might have helped audiences to care more about this story.


About an hour after Elizabeth and I entered the tear that brought us to Vox-Populi-crawling Columbia, I was looking around at the carnage and devil masks and I thought: "I miss Columbia."

Remember Columbia?  That sunny, beautiful spot where the racist white people walked around in nice hats and listened to barbershop tunes?

Or remember, more interestingly, that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson had been increased to a level of Godhood?  That they held a sword, a scroll, and a key that had become sacraments and tokens of great religious power?

Remember how that all kinda got thrown away by the story?

Our first exposure to Columbia is in a temple.  Instead of the numbing weirdness of Comstock House, where  mutilated tuba players watched over guys wearing president masks, I would have liked to see the Great Temple of Comstockism, where high-ranking zealots practice the deep secrets of the Columbian Arts--Washingtonians planning which American cities to destroy and how, Jeffersonians stealing artifacts from Washington, D.C., and the busyworking Franklinians struggling to keep up with the genius Luteces and understand the sciences.  What a beautiful and challenging level that would have been.

Wounded Knee

Another part of the beauty of Columbia is its mystery.  We who have played know that Comstock's vision of  Columbia must exist to some degree in Booker--was he a strong-willed American patriot?  Was he a racist? Did he dream of a better society?  The mechanics of Elizabeth allow us a chance to see this.

Slate knew Booker DeWitt almost directly before he became Zachary Comstock.  They fought together at the Battle of Wounded Knee.  What if in one of the tears that Elizabeth rips open, Booker found his way onto the battlefield of Wounded Knee and lost sight of her.  He had to fight his way past Indians and joined Slate on the battlefield.

There are several awesome clues that we could get here.  We could find Booker's tent and his book about George Washington.  We could see the real Booker (or play as him) as he gleefully chops up Indians and touts their scalps.  We could see him hoist an American flag.  We could see him almost killed by an Indian and saved by a silhouette that looks like Ben Franklin but turns out to be Slate.  These kind of hints make the audience go What The Heck? and then allow them to say "Oh, I get it!" when we learn that Booker is Comstock.  The hints would already be there, instead of coming out of left field.

File:Bioshock wounded knee statue.jpg

The Luteces

These two have an interesting story which we only hear about over voxophones.  Laaaame.  What if we learned about the Luteces by having a bigger laboratory, a setting which was pretty lame anyway?  Sure, with some thought we can figure out that they are the same person from different dimensions.  Sure, we realize that they are trying to puppet all the variables in order for Booker to succeed and stop Columbia from blowing up the world.  But how did Rosalind get mixed up with Comstock.  Huh?  Huh?!

The Luteces are fascinating but hardly give us anything in terms of emotional connection.  Their death is not detailed or shown to us, but in the laboratory that Luteces would have every reason and capability to show Elizabeth and Booker what happened to them.  Or perhaps Elizabeth would open a tear and show us their death/reincarnation.  Imagine a prostrate Rosalind praying to George Washington as she fails and fails again at getting the machine to work, suddenly blessed with success (and a twin!).  Imagine Rosalind's discovery of Comstock's plans and her argument with the Prophet.  Imagine the torture of Robert that Rosalind has to witness that finally brings about their death and escape.  Is this cool?  Yes, it is.

3.  Elizabeth

Ken Levine is not a religious man, and much of Bioshock Infinite is an indictment of religion.  I am not only religious but a practicing Mormon--my religion was a clear source for many ideas that exist in Columbia.  Even with these things, I saw much that testified of God and of His goodness in Bioshock Infinite.  One of its great questions is "How can I undo the evil I have done?" Comstock asks it, Booker asks it, the Luteces certainly have asked it, Elizabeth has reason to ask it after her murder of Daisy Fitzroy.

Most of us do not have access to interdimensional portals, and even if we did, the laws of quantum mechanics imply an infinite universe of choices in which we make all possible decisions.  It is a complicated business indeed for Elizabeth to destroy Comstock--she must stop him from ever existing by stepping through all of the universes and smothering him in the crib.  Believers in Christ see him as a figure who steps into the past and changes the person that has been created by evil choices made.

The music that trickles into Columbia from the future hints at this: "Can the Circle be Unbroken?" says that there are "loved ones in the glory, whose dear forms you often miss.  When you close your earthly story will you join them in your bliss?" and asks if there is a better home awaiting in the sky.  "God Only Knows" potently states "God only knows what I'd be without you."

Elizabeth may become omnipotent when the syphon is broken, but she doesn't become heartless.  If she only had these last few moments to be with Booker before she killed him, is it possible that she would take him to France?  To stand under the Eiffel Tower for a few moments before opening a door back to Wounded Knee, the baptism, and the final smothering?  It could be nice.  Hasn't the existence of this twisted universe offered Booker a chance to meet his daughter?  Hasn't it made the world better for them, even if the new Booker and his new Anna will never meet Elizabeth as she was?

In the end, Bioshock Infinite tells a beautiful story that, in its hurry to let us know the secret, sometimes forgets to open its heart to us.  Kudos to all involved in its creation, and more power to them.  I hope my thoughts help express my respect and appreciation for what has been offered.  Good job, guys.